Recent research by the clinical psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert who developed Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) as a third wave solution to the limitations of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, suggests that ‘building a compassionate sense of self and skills’ promotes mental and physical wellbeing and reduces ‘self-criticism and depression’ (2017, n.p. 'Implications' section). In Gilbert’s research, compassion is taken to mean as ‘a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it’. Practising, modelling and encouraging our students to develop compassion for others and themselves in the course of their studies helps to build both our and their academic and professional resilience.
Gilbert founded the charity The Compassionate Mind Foundation in 2006, staff who want to discover more about the origins, theory and practice of Compassion Focused Therapy may wish to engage with that charity's free resources (videos, audios, papers, chapters and links).
Crudely summarised, our mammalian ability to anticipate threat and and move into fight or flight mode is triggered unhelpfully by socially competitive situations in which primal parts of human brains don't really differentiate social awkwardness from imminent attack by a woolly mammoth! In situations where we feel very anxious, our ability to learn, interact and enjoy the experience are seriously impaired by our bodies' natural anxiety reactions.
Taking a compassionate approach to ourselves and others can help to acknowledge but also override these instinctive reactions and whenever we have the opportunity to engineer compassion in our own lives and group situations, we improve the experience and performances of not just ourselves but the people we are with.
In her 2011 article, Hao defined ‘critical compassionate pedagogy’ as ‘a pedagogical commitment that allows educators to criticize institutional and classroom practices that ideologically place underserved students at disadvantaged positions, while at the same time be self-reflexive of their actions through compassion as a daily commitment’ (p. 92). Hao is clear that partnership in learning between students and educators is key, especially with first generation students or students from groups which have been marginalised. ‘Critical compassionate pedagogy is about involving educators and students in talking about their needs to establish a pedagogy that works for both of them. Teachers can try to implement different approaches to pedagogy to cater to the needs of a diverse student body. Teachers can also provide extra academic support to FGS, [first generation students] which can be a great help to those who are struggling with course materials, but are too afraid to ask for help. […] Although teachers must ensure that they are meeting the needs of FGS, students themselves should also strive to become the best students they can be’ (pp. 97-8).
Social constructivism underpins most of what we do to facilitate adult learning in UK Universities. To put it another way, most of what we do when we teach assumes that as people, we all relate new learning to our prior experiences and that our knowledge develops through our interactions with other people.
The negative impact on staff and student wellbeing due to feelings of isolation precipitated by the Covid-19 national lockdowns in 2020-2021 has emphasised the value of compassionate human interactions to life and learning. We may not be explicitly aware of it, but many colleagues and students are struggling with health, familial, finance and logistical challenges, thus, acting with compassion in all our interactions can positively transform everyone’s experience of working and studying at Canterbury Christ Church University.
Gilbert, P., Catarino, F., Duarte, C., Matos, M., Kolts, R., Stubbs, J., Ceresatto, L., Duarte, J., Pinto-Gouveia, J. and Basran, J. (2017). The development of compassionate engagement and action scales for self and others. Journal of Compassionate Health Care, 4(1).
Hao, R.N. (2011). Critical compassionate pedagogy and the teacher’s role in first-generation student success. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2011(127), pp.91–98.